Joseph Kenny, O.P.











Delivered as “Islamic Christology, a Christian evaluation” at the 5th National Conference of the Catholic Theological Association of Nigeria (CATHAN), April 1990, and printed in Nigerian Journal of Theology, 1:6 (May, 1991), 28-49


“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). The question is who, not what Jesus is. Yet Peter's answer, “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, goes beyond the Old Testament anticipation of a Messiah-prophet, and carries us into the high Christological perspectives of John and Paul, with a glimpse of the mystery of the Trinity. The great councils of the early Church had formulated the details of Trinitarian and Christological dogma well before Muhammad's birth, around 570.  In the isolation of Arabia, what did he know and make of all this?

      Social changes in the Arabian Hijâz in the early 7th century shook the traditional religion, and new religious ideas and aspirations were in the air. There were colonies of Jews, and contacts with Persians, Ethiopians and Syrians. The main Christian influence, a vague apocryphal echo of orthodox Christianity, came through Judaeo-Christian hermits on the route to Syria.

      In such an atmosphere there was nothing surprising in Muhammad's withdrawal to the mountains for some solitude and religious experience. And there was nothing singular in his sharing this experience with others, as his message at this time was confined to obvious basic truths that any religious preacher might say.

      As his following grew, Muhammad had to contend with the social ferment of the times, and his community became a leading party calling for a new political order.  At this time Muhammad had to define his position regarding other religions. The traditional religion he condemned outright. For a while he presented Islam as the religion of the Arabs, on a par with Judaism and Christianity which held sway among other peoples.  As Muhammad's vision developed, however, he saw that the only place for Islam was over all other religions as their fulfilment.  Any genuine prophet of a previous religion was only a precursor or stepping stone to his own definitive prophetic ministry. They must decrease as he increases.

      Islam claims to honour all the prophets. True, but they have no independent function. Their message is all contained in the Qur'ân; so the Bible, besides being corrupted (as Muslims generally charge), is redundant. The figures of the prophets remain, however, as props, supporters and genealogical ancestry legitimizing the prophethood of Muhammad.

      Jesus is one of these earlier prophets, and the chief one. In the Islamic scheme he cannot have come from God as his personal revelation, but had to be just a bearer of a message. This message was the Gospel, a book dictated to Jesus as the Qur'ân was later dictated to Muhammad. It was a single book which preached strict monotheism, proclaimed moral laws which revised Mosaic law somewhat, and above all prophesied the coming of Muhammad.  Of course Muslims have to say that such a Gospel book has long ago vanished. But that is no loss, because the Qur'ân has recovered all that it had of value.

      Let us examine this Islamic Jesus, the Messenger of the next to final time, the precursor of Muhammad, seeing what the Qur'ân and Hadîth (tradition) say, what Muslim apologetics makes of him, negatively or positively, how Christians variously react to Muslim Christology, and what principles underlie the differences between Islam and Christianity regarding what Jesus is.

      A word may be said about the different approaches of Muslims and Christians to these questions.  Muslims generally take the Qur'ân literally and do not go into critical research as Christians do with the bible.  Nonetheless, as Mahmoud Ayoub observes, “there is a new tendency among modern Muslim thinkers to demythologize Jesus and play down the miraculous aspect of his life”.[1]  This, he explains, is in reaction to both classical Islamic hagiography and Christian theology.

      Muslims do not see revelation as mediated through the language, culture, knowledge and attitudes of prophets, but as a pre-formulated heavenly text dictated to the prophet.  Whereas the Bible is complex, comprising many books over a long period of time, the Qur'ân is relatively homogeneous, the product of 22 years. For Christianity the Word of God is Jesus, promulgated in Scripture, while in Islam the Word of God is the Qur'ân, promulgated by Muhammad. In Christian history the Bible has not only been translated into many languages, but its meaning has constantly been reapplied and adapted to people of different needs and mentalities over the ages. The Qur'ân is essentially tied to the music of the Arabic language; its meaning has been translated widely, but little attempt has been made to distinguish what is essential and lasting legislation from what was meant only for the circumstances in which it was promulgated.[2]

The Qur'ânic infancy narratives

The Qur'ân (3:38-41, 19:2-15, 21:89-90) gives a resumé of the birth of John the Baptist, emphasizing the power of God to do what seems impossible, to give a barren couple a child. John himself “will proclaim as true a Word from God; he will be noble, chaste and a worthy prophet” (3:39). Details of John's and Zechariah's lives and deaths are added by Islamic historical tradition, partly reflecting the Gospels, partly apocryphal.[3]

      The Qur'ân 3:33 ff. describes the birth of Mary. She is said to be the daughter of 'Imrân, seemingly out of confusion with Miryam, the sister of Moses, whose father was Amran (Num 26:59), although the Tradition literature clearly distinguishes the two Marys. She was dedicated to the Lord and presented in the Temple.  (There is no Biblical parallel for this, even though the Church celebrates a feast of the Presentation of Mary.  It is found in the apocryphal Book of James.)  There she is raised by Zechariah.

      The story of the Annunciation is told twice, in 19:16 ff. and 3:42 ff. Mary withdrew to “an eastern place” where she stayed “behind a curtain”.  The angel (name not mentioned, but Muslim commentators say it is Gabriel) appears to her in the form of a handsome man who says, “God has chosen you and purified you, and chosen you above all women” (lit. “above the women of the world”).  She recoils in fear, but is reassured and told that she would have a child. She protests that no man has touched her and she is not a harlot, and the angel tells her that all God has to do is say “Be” and it is. Muslim tradition greatly elaborates the Annunciation story, adding that the Spirit, Gabriel, breathed into Mary's sleeve, causing her pregnancy.  The 13th century writer Ibn-'Arabî therefore speculated that Jesus is half-man, half angel.[4]

      Geoffry Parrinder, a liberal Protestant, tries to argue that the virginal conception of Jesus is not necessarily taught either in the Bible or the Qur'ân[5]  His arguments may hold good from a simple exegetical point of view, although by stretching the text from its more obvious meaning. The main objection against his arguments is that they go against constant Christian and Muslim interpretation. For Christians their interpretation relies on the Spirit's guidance of the Church in understanding the Scriptures. For Muslims it is simply a question of consensus, and it is as easy to ask Muslims to revise this teaching as it is to ask them to consider whether they would want to accept another religion.

      According to the Qur'ân, Mary withdrew to “a faraway place” where she gave birth.  The pains of delivery made her despair, but God told her not to be sad but to shake the palm tree where she rested and eat the dates and drink from a stream that appeared. When she brought the child home she was accused of being unchaste.  Mary simply pointed to the child, who proceeded to preach a sermon about his prophetic mission.  Some of these details are found in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and in the Arabic Infancy Gospel.

      The Qur'ân also attacks the Jews for a “monstrous calumny” against Mary, presumably calling her a harlot (4:156).

      Ath-Tha'labî relates a tradition that the four best women in the history of the world are Mary, the mother of Jesus, Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, Khadîja, the first wife of Muhammad, and Fâtima, his daughter.[6]  Bukhârî, author of the foremost collection of tradition (Hadîth), explains that Mary was the best woman in her time, while Khadîja was the best woman of her own time.[7]  No comparisons are made except when speaking of Fâtima, who is called “the first lady (sayyida) of the women of Paradise”.[8]  Ibn-Athîr, Ahmad ibn-Hanbal and Abű-Ja'far at-Tabarî, other collectors of Hadîth, add the qualification: Fâtima is the “first lady of the women of Paradise, after Mary daughter of 'Imrân”.  Yet other Hadîth give the preponderance of honour to Fâtima.[9]

Jesus' public life and death

Kenneth Cragg observes that, while the Gospels are Passion narratives with an introduction, the Qur'ânic Jesus is a nativity story with an appendix.[10]  Of Jesus' public life there are only vague allusions. Qur'ân 3:49 says: “I shape birds for you from clay and breath on them and they become birds, by God's permission. I heal the blind and the lepers and raise the dead, by God's permission.”  God is said to have taught him “the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel” (3:48; cf. 3:3,65, 5:46,110, 57:27).  He also “made licit some things that had been forbidden” (3:50). Failing in his appeal to get the Jews to worship God alone and obey him as God's messenger, “Jesus sensed unbelief in them and said, ‘Who are my helpers (ansâr) for the sake of God?’ The disciples (hawâriyűn) said, ‘We are God's helpers. We believe in God; bear witness that we are Muslims’” (3:52; cf. 5:111).  The discourse continues, still about Jesus, but another dimension has been superimposed, that of Muhammad addressing his own people. The faithful rally to him in the struggle against the unbelievers.  In the end God will make the believers triumph and punish the unbelievers (3:53-58).

      We may see either the multiplication of the loaves or the last supper or Peter's vision (Acts 10:9) in the following elusive pericope: “The disciples said, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, can your Lord send us a table from heaven?’ He said, ‘Fear God, if you are believers.’ They replied, ‘We wish to eat and put our hearts at rest, knowing that you are true to us, while we are witnesses to it.’  Jesus son of Mary said, ‘God, our Lord, make a table come down from heaven which will be a feast for the least and the greatest of us, and will be a sign from you. Provide for us, since you are the best provider.’ God said, ‘I am sending the table down to you.  Any of you who disbelieve after this I will punish as I never punished anyone before in the world’” (5:112-115).

      During his life Jesus also said, according to Qur'ân 61:6: “I announce to you a messenger who will come after me whose name is Ahmad” - another name for Muhammad.

      Regarding the death of Jesus, there are the words Jesus is to have said in the cradle, “Peace be on me the day of my birth, the day I die and the day I am risen back alive” (19:23).  In another place God says, “Jesus, I am going to take you (mutawaffî-ka, normally meaning ‘cause to die’) and raise you up to myself” (3:55; cf. 5:117).  Yet when it comes to the crucifixion, we find the following verses in the midst of a section excoriating the Jews: “[And they are to be blamed] for their unbelief and for saying ’We have killed the Messiah, Jesus on of Mary, a messenger of God.‘ They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was only to appear so to them.  Those who differ about him are not sure about him. They have no knowledge of him, but are only following fantasy.  They certainly did not kill him, but God lifted him up to himself” (Q 4:156-158).

      This passage has given rise to endless comment, particularly on the words shubbiha la-hum (“it was made to appear to them”). This is a passive verb, here translated as impersonal.  Most older commentators translate it personally, meaning “He [a substitute] was made to appear to them [like Jesus]” and was crucified in his stead (Tabarî, Ibn-Athîr, Ibn-Kathîr etc.).  The 12th century commentator az-Zamakhsharî summarizes this view:

The Jews gathered to kill him. Then God told him he would take him up to heaven and cleanse him from the company of the Jews.  So Jesus said to his companions, “Which of you will volunteer to have my likeness cast on him and be killed by being crucified and then go to Paradise?” One of them said, “I will”, and Jesus' likeness was cast on him and he was killed by being crucified. Another opinion is that Jesus had a hypocritical disciples and when the Jews wanted to kill Jesus the disciple said, “I will show you where he is.”  When they entered Jesus' house, Jesus was taken up and his likeness cast on the hypocrite. The Jews grabbed and killed him, thinking he was Jesus.[11]

The same az-Zamakhsharî belonged to the Mu'tazilite school of theology which emphasized the absolute justice of God. He was the first to offer an alternative to the substitutionist interpretation, giving a grammatical argument for an impersonal reading (“It was made to appear to them”).[12]

      Az-Zamakhsharî's disciple, al-Baydâwî (d. 1286) repeated the traditional opinion as well as az-Zamakhsharî's impersonal reading, and went a step further by speculating that no one was killed at all, but only a false rumour was circulated to the effect.  He goes on to mention among the differing uncertain opinions the [Nestorian] theory that Jesus' humanity was crucified, but his divinity taken up.[13]  Fakhraddîn ar-Râzî (d. 1209), another Mu'tazilite, and many later commentators leave the question open whether or not anyone was substituted for Jesus on the cross.

      In any case, practically all Muslims say that Jesus did not die on the cross.  The common opinion is that he did not die at all, but was taken up to heaven alive. He will come again near the end of time to preach Islam, then die and rise in the general resurrection. Those who follow this opinion interpret the word mutawaffî-ka either as taking Jesus alive to heaven when the Jews wanted to kill him, or as referring to Jesus' death when he comes again.[14]

      The Ahmadiyya sect is known chiefly for its teaching that Jesus escaped crucifixion, migrated to Kashmir, died at the age of 120 and is buried at Srinagar.  They believe that their founder, Guilam Ahmad (d. 1908) is the Mahdî (“divinely guided” eschatological reformer of religion), Jesus and Muhammad come again, and the avatar of Krishna all rolled in one.[15]  For this claim to be a prophet and more than a prophet, the World Muslim League rejected Ahmadis as Muslims, and Saudi Arabia will not give them visas to come on pilgrimage.

      Some modern Muslims, especially Shî'ites, also hold that Jesus died and only his spirit was taken up to heaven.[16]  Even Tabarî in the 10th century mentions such a view.[17]  But the generality of Muslims await the second coming of Jesus like an Elijah before the end of time.

      The second coming of Jesus is not at all a clear Qur'ânic teaching. The only verse in support of it is 43:61: “[Jesus] is a knowledge (read 'ilm) of the hour”, by whose descent the hour is known.  A clearer variant reading is: “He is a sign (read 'alam) of the hour”.[18]   Islamic tradition has elaborated a mass of detail about Jesus' second coming. He will marry and have children, break crosses, kill pigs, kill the antichrist (Dajjâl), revive Islam, and finally die and be buried next to Muhammad.  Some traditions identify Jesus with the expected Mahdî; others distinguish the two, as does popular African Islamic belief. at the last judgement Jesus will be a witness against Christians who took him and his Mother to be gods (Q 5:116-118).[19]

Titles of Jesus in the Qur'ân

Although denying that Jesus is God or a son of God, the Qur'ân gives him a series of honourable titles, some of which even hint at his divinity, but are not understood as such by Muslims.

      One of these titles is the Jewish term for a prophet (nabî - 2:87,253; 3:48-51; 5:46,110; 4:63-66; 57:27; 61:6. See also the lists in 2:136; 3:84; 4:162; 6:85; 33:7; 42:13). The commoner Arabic term for a messenger (rasűl) is also used (2:87,253, 3:49,53, 4:157,171, 5:75,111, 57:27, 61:6).

      He is called Messiah (masîh) eleven times, but as a personal name with no idea of the Biblical meaning of “the anointed one”. The classical commentators show the same ignorance.

      Three times Jesus is called the servant/slave of God ('Abdallâh - 4:172, 19:30, 43:59), meaning simply a creature indebted to God. The messianic resonances of Isaiah's suffering servant are absent in the Qur'ân.

      In two passages Jesus is called a word (kalima) of God: “The angels said, ‘Mary, God makes an announcement to you of a word from himself whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, outstanding in this world and the next, and one of those drawn near [to God]’” (3:45). Again: “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, is only a messenger of God and his word which he projected to Mary, and a spirit from himself” (4:171).  Since in the early centuries of Islam Christians used this verse to try to convince Muslims of the divinity of Jesus, Muslim commentators have come up with a variety of interpretations that harmonize with the general Qur'ânic denial of the divinity of Jesus. The most common argument is by reference to Qur'ân 19:35, which says, “It is not fitting for God to take a son for himself... He only says ‘Be’, and it is”; the “word” is taken to mean this command to be, creating Jesus without a human father. See below for the opinion of Ali Merad.

      In the above verse 4:171, Jesus is also called a spirit from God. In 19:17 - “We sent to her our spirit, which appeared to her as a well shaped man” - the reference is to the messenger-angel announcing that she is to be the mother of Jesus. Possibly referring to Jesus is the verse, “We breathed into her from our spirit and made her and her son a sing for the world” (21:91; cf. 66;12).  In common Muslim usage Jesus is given the title Rűhallâh (Spirit of God).

      In other uses of the word “spirit”, the Qur'ân says that God confirmed or support Jesus with the “holy spirit ”(rűh al-qudus, literally: “spirit of the Holy”: 2:87,253, 5:110), but Muslim tradition understands this “holy spirit” as the angel Gabriel, as in 19:17, quoted above. While many passages about Qur'ânic revelation seem to suppose direct revelation to Muhammad, elsewhere the “spirit” is mentioned as a mediator: “The spirit of holiness [holy spirit] sent it down from your Lord with truth” (16:102).  “The faithful spirit brought it down” (26:293).  Qur'ân 2:97 explicitly refers to Gabriel as the medium of revelation.

      These varying usages of the word “spirit”: a supporting spirit, a spirit who reveals (Gabriel?) and the spirit of God (Jesus), make us wonder if Muhammad thought God had several spirits, of different orders. When some Arabs prompted by Jewish rabbis asked him what is the spirit, he answered, “The spirit is by/in the command of my Lord” (17:85), which an mean, “The spirit is sent as the Lord commands”, as in 16:2: “By his command he sends the angels with the spirit upon those servants of his whom he chooses.”  Various speculations have been made to indicate more precisely what the Qur'ân means by “spirit” and how the various usages came about. But nothing certain can be said, and it seems the Qur'ân simply had a fluid vague idea of “spirit” and applied it to Jesus possibly because some Judaeo-Christians were using the term of him.

      Qur'ân 3:45, quoted above, describes Jesus as outstanding (wajîh).  This word comes from wajh, meaning face, and indicates being in the forefront, eminent or highly honoured.

      The same verse says that he is one of those drawn near (muqarrab).  In 7:114 and 26:42 this word is used by Pharaoh who promises the magicians that they will be rewarded and become members of his inner circle if they perform better than Moses.  Elsewhere it is used of men who are admitted to Paradise and are drawn near to God (83:21,28, 56:88), and of angels (4:172) who, like Jesus, do not disdain to be called servants of God.

      Qur'ân 19:21 gives Jesus two more titles when Gabriel tells Mary God's intentions: “We are to make him a sign for mankind and a mercy from us.”  The word âya, “sign”, means a miracle (like semeion in John), and was later used for a “verse” of the Qur'ân, each of which is considered a miraculous sign from God. Muslim commentators take “sign” in this verse to mean the miraculous conception of Jesus.[20]  In 3:50 Jesus says, “I came to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God and obey me.”  This may refer to any of the miracles of Jesus.  In 23:50 God says, “We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign”. Verse 21:90 makes it more embracing: “We made her and her son a sign for the world.”  This verse answers the argument of some modern Muslims that Jesus was sent only to the Jews and his religion is not for the whole world. For the universality of Muhammad's mission see Q 12:104, 38:87, 68:52, 81:37 (the Qur'ân a “reminder for mankind”), 21:107 (Muhammad a “mercy to mankind”), 25:1 (“a warner of mankind”), 34:28 (“a preacher and warner to all men”).

      Sura 43 contains excerpts of a dispute Muhammad had with the Meccans who did not want to believe in him.  He told the stories of Abraham and of Moses to argue his point, and then took up the story of Jesus:  “When the Son of Mary is cited as a parable, your people turn away from him” (43:57).  “He is only a servant whom we have favoured and made a parable for the Sons of Israel” (43:59). The word for parable, mathal, is a variant of the Hebrew -;/ (mashal).  It is also used with the meaning of example.  The idea is that the prophetic career of Jesus is seen as a type of that of Muhammad from which parallels can be drawn. Likewise a mathal is drawn between Jesus and Adam, in that “Adam was created from the earth and God said ‘Be’ and he was” (3:59). It would be an extension of the Qur'ânic meaning to say that Jesus is an example for all to follow.

      Important to Islamic eschatology is the role of a witness in giving the final just judgement.  There are human witnesses, such as the prophets who note how people receive their message, and above all God is the witness of everything. In 5:117 Jesus is said to be a witness to his people as long as he was among them, and in 4:159 it is said that Jesus will be a witness over all People of the Book (Jews and Christians) on the day of resurrection.

      Finally, the annunciation-infancy narrative of sura 19 adds the title blessed: “He made me blessed wherever I am” (19:21)

Negative Christology in the Qur'ân

Besides giving Jesus these honorific titles, the Qur'ân is concerned with rejecting what it considers exaggerations. We have seen the title “Servant of God” (4:172, 19:30).  In 43:59 it is used as a term of limitation: “He is only [nothing more than] a servant of God.”

      The Qur'ân has no word for the adjective “divine” or for the abstraction “divinity”.  Therefore the issue is whether God and Jesus are the same or different. “They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, son of Mary’.  The Messiah himself said, ‘Sons of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord. If anyone associates another with God, God will shut heaven against him and his abode will be hell...’” (5:72; cf. 5:17).

      Jesus' divinity is also attacked as part of a Trinity consisting of God, Jesus and Mary: “God said, ‘Jesus son of Mary, did you tell the people, “Take me and my Mother as gods besides God”?’” (5:116; cf. 4:171). Elsewhere the Qur'ân curses those who affirm a trinity: “They are unbelievers who say that God is a third of three. There is only one God.  If they do no cease their talk a painful punishment will come on the unbelievers among them” (5:73).

      The same passage goes on to argue why Jesus cannot be God: “The Messiah son of mary was only a messenger in a series of messengers and his mother was faithful.  They both ate food” (5:75). This is the basic argument repeated in different words by all Muslim apologist to this day: Jesus cannot be God because it is evident that he is human.

      Jesus' divine sonship is explicitly denied as well: “Do no say three. Stop; it is better for you.  God is only one God.  he is too glorious to have a son.  His is everything in heaven and on earth” (4:171). Likewise: “God cannot take for himself a son. He is too glorious.  If he decides a matter he only says, ‘Be’, and it is” (19:35; cf. 9:30, 10:68; 19:88; 112:4).  Moreover, “How can he have a son when he has no wife?” (6:101; cf. 72:3).

      The Qur'ân's repudiation of Jesus' divine sonship goes along with the condemnation of the Arabian traditional belief in “daughters of God”. “Should he take daughters from what he created, but give you sons?  If one of the [unbelievers] is informed of the birth of what they assign to the Merciful One, his face hangs darkened and he chokes up” (43:16; cf. 37:149-157).

      The last word on this topic, however, is the astonishing statement: “Say, ‘If the Merciful One had a son, I would be the first to worship him’” (43:81).

Muslim polemical literature

Debate between Muslims and Christians began right in the lifetime of Muhammad.  Two particular instances are recorded: the Muslim apologetic before the Ethiopian emperor where a group of Muslims had fled from Mecca,[21] and again, towards the end of Muhammad's life, when a delegation of Christians from Najrân in Yemen came with their bishop to make a treaty with Muhammad.[22]

      In the first instance two messengers came to Ethiopia from Mecca demanding the extradition of the refugees.  In the course of their defense, the refugees said that Jesus is “the servant and messenger of God and his spirit and word which he cast into the Virgin Mary.”  This reply is quoting Qur'ân 4:171, which all agree belongs to the Medinan period, after the Ethiopian episode.  The Ethiopian emperor is asserted to have agreed that Jesus is no more than what the Muslims said. The account of this episode (in Ibn-Hishâm) dates from 200 years later, and its is understandable that the oral tradition would be affected by Muslim-Christian debates well after the event in question.

      In the account of Muhammad's meeting with the Christian delegation from Najrân three different opinions about Jesus are ascribed to the supposedly divided delegation: 1) He is God, 2) He is the son of God, 3) He is a third of three. The account plausibly says that all the Qur'ânic passages combatting these notions - which we have seen above - were revealed on this occasion.  When the Najrân visitors remained unconvinced by these Qur'ânic arguments, Muhammad proposed that each side should invoke God's curse on the side that is wrong.  The Christians refused this proposal and asked to be allowed to go in peace, with each party holding to his own religion.  This Muhammad agreed to.

      Over the centuries Muslim polemics against Christianity have continued to utilize Qur'ânic misconceptions and refutations of Christian teaching. From the early Middle Ages some Muslim writers adapted their polemics to take account of the New Testament texts which they had become familiar.  Furthermore, the use of philosophy in religious discussions brought another dimension to the Christological debate.[23]Cristo e la dottrina della Trinitŕ (Rome: Pont. Inst. Bibl., 1938) and George Anawati, "Polémique, apologie et dialogue islamo-chrétiens. Positions classiques et positions contemporaines", Etuntes docete, 22 (1969), pp. 375-452.

      Muslim arguments against the divinity of Christ almost universally show no comprehension of the Christian idea of his consubstantiality with the Father or of his distinct human and divine natures. The fundamental argument is evidence that he was human. At first only Qur'ânic data was used. Later all the incidents in the gospels showing Jesus' inferiority to the Father)used before by the Arians)were brought in.  For example, he prayed and was tempted, tired etc.

      Another sort of argument was developed to refute Christian citations of New Testament passages that show the divinity of Jesus. These are explained away as metaphorical exaggerations reflecting theopathic mystical experience.  In recent times Muslim make extensive use of any Western rationalist criticism of the New Testament which could lend support to their position. On the other hand, the New Testament itself is attacked as a distortion of Jesus teaching by Paul and others. Any passage which is unacceptable can simply be dismissed as a corruption, on the basis of certain Qur'ân verses which are themselves not altogether clear:

[The Jews] distort words from their meanings, and they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded of... We made a covenant with those who say, “We are Christians”, but they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded of... People of the Book, our messenger has come to you, making clear to you many things in the Book you have been concealing and many others you have been effacing (5:13-15; cf. 2:42,75-79,140,159,174, 3:71; 6:91).[24]

      Christians very early pressed their own claims about Jesus upon Muslims by using Qur'ân verses, particularly those giving Jesus the title “Word of God”.[25]  Muslims therefore had to develop another set of arguments to ward off a Christian reading of the Qur'ân.

      Again, Muslims had recourse to purely rational or philosophical arguments to press their points:  Three cannot be one, and conversely.  It is unjust to punish one man (Jesus) for the sins of others. He didn't save the world, because evil continues. What would happen to the world if God died for three days? etc.

      Finally, the Ahmadiyya movement takes a unique approach against Christian Christology by attempting to downplay or attack the person of Jesus, at least as he is portrayed in the gospels.  It denies the virgin birth of Jesus, saying his father was Joseph.[26]  It interprets Jesus' miracles of healing the sick as simply a spiritual, not a physical healing.[27]  Even the Qur'ânic assertion that Jesus spoke from the cradle to defend his mother (19:29) is interpreted as referring to Jesus' speech when he was grown.[28]  In the Ahmadiyya book of A.D. Ajijola, The myth of the cross,[29] Jesus' teaching in the New Testament is attacked under the chapter headings “Superstition in the Gospels” and “Doubtful Ethics of the New Testament”.  Jesus is accused of rudeness to the woman of Canaan (Mt 15:21-26) and to his Mother (Jn 2:1-4 & Mt 12:47-48).  other alleged sins of Jesus are offering wine to people (Jn 2:8), telling lies about gong up to Jerusalem (Jn 7:8-10) and being too intimate with a woman (Lk 7:137-38).  Moreover he took baptism from John for the forgiveness of sins.[30]

Muslims attempts to maximize Jesus

While still firmly rejecting the divinity of Jesus, some Muslims have gone far beyond the usual interpretation of the Qur'ân and look upon Jesus as someone unique and special and more than a prophet. Let us look at a few samples.

      Sűfic tradition, utilizing gospel accounts out of context and amplifying on them, had early made Jesus into a wandering ascetic and preacher.[31]  One of the earliest and most famous Sűfis, al-Hallâj (d. 922), while not speculating about the person of Jesus, was enthraled by the mystery of the cross.  His guiding ideal was union with God through an all absorbing love, a love which could not find expression in enjoyment but only in suffering and the cross. A line from one of his poems reads: “I will die in the religion of the cross.  I need go no more to Mecca or Medina.”[32]  And so he died, crucified as a heretic.[33]

      Ibn-'Arabî (d. 1240), who was noted for esoteric tendencies, speculated specifically about Jesus.  He is responsible for popularizing the title “the seal of saints” (khâtam al-anbiyâ') to correspond with Muhammad's title “the seal of prophets” (Q 33:40, and Ubayy's variant of 61:6).[34]  Muhammad's prerogative is to have come with definitive legislative prophesy. Jesus' prerogative, at his second coming, will be to come with definitive holiness, sealing all holiness from Adam to the end of time.[35]

      Two books by Egyptian Muslims in the 1950s provoked much attention at the time and continue to be commented on.  The are 'Abbâs Mahműd al-'Aqqâd's Abqariya al-masîh (The genius of the Messiah)[36] and Kâmil Husayn's Qarya zâlima (The wicked city).[37]  Both books utilize the gospels as authentic historical sources and present sympathetically and forcefully Jesus' moral teaching and example. The second centres particularly on the trial and condemnation of Jesus.  both books, however, skilfully skirt the issue whether Jesus actually died on the cross.

      A final sample of Muslim admiration of Jesus is Ali Merad's “Christ according to the Qur'ân”.[38]  This contemporary Algerian first affirms his belief in the Qur'ân and in the negative assertions it makes about Jesus.  He takes these at their face value, in line with mainstream Muslim interpretation.

      Surveying the positive titles given to Jesus, Merad observes that, unlike other prophets, including Muhammad, the Qur'ân never calls Jesus bashar (earthly mortal being), even though he is said to have eaten food (5:75).  That the Qur'ân presents Jesus as more than merely human is shown in the titles kalima (word) and rűh (spirit). Merad argues that verses 3:45 and 4:171 should be taken literally as asserting that Jesus is the word of God, not that he was created by the word of God.  Likewise he is called God's spirit breathed into Mary (21:91; 66:12), when one would have expected the word nafs, the usual Qur'ânic term for the immortal soul.  He concluded that the term rűh (15:29; 38:72) suggests “a spiritual nature infinitely more eminent than ordinary natures”.  Of Adam too God says, “I breathed into him of my spirit” (15:29; 38:72), bot only Jesus is called the word of God and the spirit of God. Merad goes on to give four other Qur'ânic indications of Jesus' surpassing greatness:

1. The Qur'ân states that the Envoys differ in rank (2:253).  It mentions in a special way Moses (“to whom God spoke”) and Jesus, Son of Mary, to whom God gave “clear signs” (bayyinât, 2;253; 43:63), and whom he assisted by the Holy Spirit (rűh al-qudus, 2:87,253).

2. Christ is an Envoy to whom God conferred an eminent prestige (wajîhan) in this world and in the next (3:45). This term, according to all commentators, implies holiness in the one it qualifies and the grace of intercession.

3. He is quoted among those who are “near stationed”, the intimate associates of the Lord (muqarrabűn, 3;45). Archangels are similarly designated by this term.

4. To him alone are attributed acts such as to create (yakhluq), and to bring to life the death (yuhyî), by the leave of God, of course (3:49).  but to be attributed with such things - not accorded to other Prophets - places Christ above the ordinary condition of the “envoys of God” and raises him to a level never attained by other men.[39]

Merad concludes that, while these texts do no attribute divinity to Jesus, they give him a very high status which cannot exactly be defined.  He observes that for a Muslim “the nature of mystery is more familiar than is generally realized”.[40]

      We can summarize the Muslim attitude to Jesus in the words of Kenneth Cragg:

Islam has a great tenderness for Jesus, yet a sharp dissociation from his Christian dimensions... Islam finds his nativity miraculous but his Incarnation impossible.  His teaching entails suffering, but the one is not perfected in the other. He is highly exalted, but by rescue rather than by victory.  He is vindicated, but not by resurrection  His servanthood is understood to disclaim the sonship which is its secret... Islam has for him a recognition moving within a non-recognition, a rejectionism on behalf of a deep and reverent esteem.[41]

Christian reaction to Islamic Christology

Right from the time of St. John of Damascus (675-753) we see the use of Christian reading of the Qur'ân. He says:

since you say that Christ is Word and Spirit of God, how do you scold us as Associators?  For the Word and the Spirit is inseparable each from the one in whom they have their origin; if therefore the Word is in God it is obvious that he is God as well.  If, on the other hand, this is outside God, then God, according to you, is without word and without spirit.  Thus trying to avoid making associates to God you have mutilated him.[42]

The same approach, to interpret the Qur'ân to make it fit Christian dogmas, has found exponents in every age.[43]  In this century we have, for example, Ignazio di Matteo arguing that the Qur'ân never denies the Trinity, the divinity of Christ or his crucifixion.[44]  The same approach is amplified by Giulio Bassetti-Sani, who finds grammatical ways around the Qur'ânic denials of Christian dogmas and sees in their place germs of Christian teaching on the divinity of Christ. These could not have been understood in their full meaning by Muhammad and his audience.  But shining the light of Christian revelation on the Qur'ân unlocks its deeper Christian meaning, just as it does for the Old Testament.[45]

      A Christian reading of the Qur'ân may find philological and literary support and even some historical plausibility.  but it runs counter to the mainstream and practically all the side-streams of Muslim thought over the centuries.  If ever there was a consensus in the Muslim world, it is on the rejection of the Christian dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the redemptive death of Christ.  A Christian interpretation of the Qur'ân will not build any bridge to Muslims, but merely provoke them to reject it as a distortion of what they believe. Christian interpretations may make sense only to a Muslim who is well on the way to becoming a Christian.

      In a realistic exchange of views between Christians and Muslims the faith and the dogmas of each must be respected and the differences admitted. Just as Muslims cannot expect Christians to recognize in Muhammad all the prerogatives that Muslims attribute to him, so Christians cannot expect Muslims to recognize in Jesus all the prerogatives that Christians attribute to him.

      Christians rejoice to see how far the Qur'ân and Muslim tradition go in honouring Jesus and asserting his dignity. Yet they are sad at the tremendous gap between Islamic and Christian theology, from the name 'Îsâ versus the Hebrew 3&:* (Yashű'), to the divergent histories of his life and opposing dogmas concerning him. Even Muslims who speak of Jesus with maximum reverence fall far short of what Christians would like to hear.

      Sadness is an understandable and inevitable reaction on both sides to differences of belief.  It needs to be tempered by tolerance and respect grounded in love for the other person.

      Christians, however, suffer an additional unnecessary pain when they see this respect lacking, when their differences of belief are attributed to obstinate rejection of evident truth.

      It must be admitted that the Qur'ân itself, although not depicting orthodox Christian beliefs, gives occasion to such accusation when it curses those who assert the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity (Q 5:72-73, quoted under “negative Christology” above).

      Christians also find offensive the unwillingness of many Muslims to look at Christianity on its own terms, in its Scripture and orthodox tradition and in the scientific textual and historical studies made on these. Instead they judge Christianity exclusively through the perspective of the Qur'ân and subsequent apologetics which greatly amplify the negative criticism it contains.[46]  Christian dogmas on the Incarnation and the Trinity are not understood and are described superficially and with distortion, so that Christians are not considered monotheists.[47]  The Bible is considered falsified, except for some passages that express Islamic ideas, but the 16th century forgery, the Gospel of Barnabas, is held up as closest to the original gospel.[48]  Rather than utilizing the wealth of authentic Christian scholarship, these Muslims appeal to secular Western authors who share their criticism of Christianity, such as Renan, Bertrand Russell, Will Durant etc.

Why Islam shrinks from the divinity of Jesus

The Qur'ân, as we have seen, sees any claim that Jesus is God or son of God as setting up another divinity alongside and separate from Allah.  The problem here is the lack of a notion of consubstantiality.

      Yet Qur'ânic thinking moves in the direction of consubstantiality when it calls Jesus the Word and the Spirit of God. Even the few Muslims who take this literally interpret it according to the “analogy of faith”.  It can mean anything short of divinity.

      In its ever repeated rejection of polytheism and polytheists, the Qur'ân uses variants of the word shirk (sharing). Associates (andâd, shurakâ') are depicted as encroachers on divine terrain, diverting to themselves what men owe to God. For example, “Some men take associates (andâd) beneath God and love them as they would love God. But those who believe are stronger in their love for God” (2:165).  “From their harvest and flocks they set aside a portion and said, ‘This is for God’)so they claim)and this is for their associates with him.  But what was destined for the associates does not reach God, and what was destined for God reaches those they associated with him” (6:136). The intercession of these associate is declared useless (e.g. 30:13).

      Both the Qur'ân and common Muslim understanding are dominated by a strong sense of the greatness of God and his absolute mastery over all creation.  Even though angels and prophets may be “drawn near” to God (muqarrabűn, 3:45, 4:172, 56:11 etc.), they remain in a state of absolute subjection and servitude. Between the Creator and creatures there is an unbridgeable gap.

      This contrasts not only with the Christian idea of the Incarnation, but also with the whole incarnational principle.  The assertion in 2 Peter 1:4 that we are sharers in the divine nature (cf. also Jn 1:12, 1 Cor 1:9, 1 Jn 1:3 etc.) is equally shocking to Islamic sensitivity.  In the history of Sűfism, al-Hallâj (d. 922) was condemned for teaching, among other things, divine indwelling (hulűl).[49]  Christian ideas of supernatural life, sanctifying grace, infused virtues and the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit are completely alien to Islam.  Also absent is the idea of man as the image of God, even on the natural level. “There is nothing like Him” (Q 42;11).

      The Islamic idea of God's complete transcendence implies an understanding of analogy in a restricted sense, that of analogy of attribution. In an analogy of attribution the prime analogate is the only real representation of the meaning of a concept. Anything else is only related to the prime analogate as an effect, a sign, a contributing factor or as a metaphorical likeness.  In an analogy of proportionality, on the other hand, a comparison is made between two real relationships: A is to B as C is to D.

      Islam, in common with mystic tradition of Asia and the Catholic West, is dominated by the contemplation of God's greatness. The more one concentrates on God, the more everything else seems to fade into insignificance by comparison. for Buddhism this world is only an illusion. St. Catherine of Siena heard God say, “I am he who is; you are she who is not”.[50]  St. John of the Cross built his mystical teaching around the concept of todo y nada.[51]  The analogy of attribution is dominant.

      Yet Catholic mysticism was balanced by the Incarnation. St. Teresa of Avila would never agree to a form of prayer which excluded the humanity of Jesus from its purview.[52]  For all the Muslim polemical accusations that Christianity is other-worldly, its is Christianity that insists on the reality of creation and on its dignity in mirroring the Creator, on the lowest level as a “trace”, on the human level as an “image”, and on the level of grace by “indwelling” and eventually “glory”.[53]  All these forms of participation in God's perfection presuppose an analogy of proportionality to balance the analogy of attribution. by the latter alone our exalting God evaporates creatures; by the former we see, with Irenaeus, that the glory of God is man fully developed.

      Islamic theology has been dominated by the Ash'arite school which pressed the contrast between God and creation so far that it denied all power and causality to creatures.  It supported its position by reducing creatures to atoms which have no continuity in space or time, and are only occasions of God's direct action in the world. This atomistic occasionalism is invoked to eliminate all power in the world because if creatures have power (and free will in the case of man) they are seen as independent of God, competing with and subtracting from his own power.  The only alternative is complete determinism in the physical and metaphysical order, and a theocratic, Sharî'a-governed state in the social order.

      Ash'arite thought is caught in this bind because it has no concept of secondary and instrumental causality.  And these are inconceivable without an idea of analogy of proportionality.[54]


Christianity and Islam converge in many ways, bringing an exhilarating relief to their otherwise divergent and often confrontational courses.  The differences derive from two different unarticulated assumptions regarding the relationship between God and creation.  Christianity assumes that God is the supreme Existent, but that the derived existence of his creatures is a distinct reality of its own participating in God's being. Islam assumes that God alone is truly existent, while all else to which we attribute existence has only a borrowed and hardly real existence.

      This explains why the Qur'ân is considered God's own heavenly product down to the last word, with no human input whatsoever. With no instrumental secondary causality, God cannot enter any common enterprise with his creatures. That is why the question of sources of Qur'ânic narratives and external influence is excluded from discussion, and why there is no need to take outside historical sources, like the New Testament and apocrypha, into consideration.

      This also explains why Jesus' exalted status and various wonderful titles are only signs of God's drawing him near, without any intrinsic worthiness entitling him to anything.  Jesus is fundamentally just a servant of God, and all his miracles are simply God's direct work.

      When Muhammad conquered Mecca and ordered the Ka'ba to be cleansed of all its idols, he directed that the images of Jesus and Mary be spared and kept there. They have since disappeared from the Ka'ba, but the images of Jesus and Mary remain in the Qur'ân and Islamic tradition.  The images are there, but not the reality of the persons they represent. We pray that the Lord who moves secretly in the midst of the Muslim community may hasten the revelation of his person to them.




Originally printed in Proceedings of Symposium organized by the Inter-diocesan Liturgy Commission for Igbo-speaking Areas of Nigeria, 21-22 July 1988, and in The Leader, 14 August 1988 (p. 6) & 28 August 1988 (p. 5).


Both the Qur'ân and Hadîth talk about Mary, as they also do about Jesus.  Some of the following details are also found in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, which are earlier than the Qur'ân.

The Qur'ânic infancy narratives

The Qur'ân (3:38-41, 19:2-15, 21:89-90) gives a resumé of the birth of John the Baptist, emphasizing the power of God to do what seems impossible, to give a barren couple a child. John himself “will proclaim as true a Word from God; he will be noble, chaste and a worthy prophet” (3:39). Details of John's and Zechariah's lives and deaths are added by Islamic historical tradition, partly reflecting the Gospels, partly apocryphal.[55]

      The Qur'ân 3:33 ff. describes the birth of Mary. She is said to be the daughter of 'Imrân, seemingly out of confusion with Miryam, the sister of Moses, whose father was Amran (Num 26:59), although the Tradition literature clearly distinguishes the two Marys. She was dedicated to the Lord and presented in the Temple.  (There is no Biblical parallel for this, even though the Church celebrates a feast of the Presentation of Mary.  It is found in the apocryphal Book of James.)  There she is raised by Zechariah.

      The story of the Annunciation is told twice, in 19:16 ff. and 3:42 ff. Mary withdrew to “an eastern place” where she stayed “behind a curtain”.  The angel (name not mentioned, but Muslim commentators say it is Gabriel) appears to her in the form of a handsome man who says, “God has chosen you and purified you, and chosen you above all women” (lit. “above the women of the world”).  She recoils in fear, but is reassured and told that she would have a child. She protests that no man has touched her and she is not a harlot, and the angel tells her that all God has to do is say “Be” and it is.

The Hadîth literature

The Hadîth literature of Islam goes much further than the Qur'ân in talking about Mary. Many biblical and apocryphal details have been assembled in a readable form in the Qisas al-anbiyâ' (Stories of the prophets) by ath-Tha'labî.

      To begin with, Mathan (the grandfather of Joseph in Matthew's genealogy) is said to be the father of Joseph and of 'Imrân, whose wife is Hanna (Anne), the parents of Mary.  Hanna's sister, 'Ishbâ' (Elizabeth), is the wife of Zachariah. Hanna was barren and prayed for a child, promising to dedicate it to the service of the Lord in the Temple. The custom was to place such dedicated boys (Girls were not eligible) in the Temple until puberty, when they were given the choice of staying or leaving.

      Mary was born and is said to have grown into the most beautiful woman of her time.  Some hadîths claiming the authority of Muhammad say that every human child is touched by Satan when it is born, and it cries out from Satan's touch. The only exceptions are Mary and her son. A variant of this hadîth is that Satan pierces every child in its side when it is born, except Jesus and his mother. A curtain was placed around them so that he pierced the curtain without touching them.  In their lives they were not affected by any sins, as are the rest of mankind. Later, talking about John the Baptist, ath-Tha'labî says that he also was never touched by sin.

      In spite of the ban on girls, Mary was presented in the Temple. Lots were cast to see who would look after her.  Zachariah won, and kept her in a mihrab, which was a room in the Temple accessible only by a high door reached with a ladder, like the Ka'ba in Mecca. Zachariah kept the door locked and only opened it to bring her food and drink.  Whenever he came he found out-of-season fruits brought to her by God.

      When Zachariah became to old to look after Mary, lots were cast again, and the turn fell to Joseph, son of Mathan, the carpenter, who was also dedicated to the Temple service.  He was sad at the burden this would place on him, but Mary told him not to worry; God will provide.

      At this time the two used to go every day to fetch water from a cavern. One day Joseph said he had enough water and did not need to go.  Mary went alone and in the cavern met Gabriel.  The dialogue transpired as narrated in the Qur'ân (19:16 ff. & 3:42 ff.). Then Gabriel breathed into the sleeve of a cloak Mary had left aside.  When Mary put on the cloak she conceived Jesus. [The 13th century writer Ibn-'Arabî therefore speculates that Jesus is half-man, half angel.[56]]

      Joseph was the first to notice Mary's pregnancy and was in a quandary. He knew her goodness and innocence, yet he was confronted by a fact.  Finally he summoned up courage to question her. Can a plant sprout without a seed, or a tree grow without rain? Can a child be conceived without a father?  Mary answered yes to all these questions, explaining that it is easy for God who created these directly in the first place to do so again.  Joseph was satisfied with her answer and looked after her, doing her work for her.

      Mary then visited her aunt, the mother of John. Each recognized that the other was pregnant, and the aunt (named Ishbâ') said that what is in my womb bows down to what is in your womb.

      God then inspired Mary to leave her people because if she gave birth among them they would trouble and maybe even kill her. Joseph heard of accusations made against her, so took her on his donkey to a place near the Egyptian border; others say Bethlehem.   Near a dry palm tree she went into labour. A variant story has it that Joseph doubted and thought of killing her on the way, but Gabriel told him that the child was from the Holy Spirit.

      The dry palm tree became fresh with fruit and water appeared beneath it. Joseph got wood and lit a fire to keep the mother and child warm, since it was winter.

      At the birth of Jesus all the idols in the world fell over, and the devils, who used to speak to men through these idols, went to Iblîs (*4"$@8@H), the chief devil, in consternation.  Iblîs searched the whole world for three hours and found out about the birth. He wanted to go near, but could not because angels were everywhere around.  He was sad that he could not pierce this child as he did every other new-born.

      Some people began to believe in Jesus because they saw his star, predicted “in the book of Daniel”.  They came with gold, myrrh and frankincense: gold because it represented the best man of his time, myrrh because it is medicinal and Jesus healed the sick, frankincense because its smoke goes up to heaven as Jesus was taken up to heaven.

      Herod wanted to kill Jesus and asked to be informed of his whereabouts, but the visitors were told to return by another way.

      God told Mary to return with the child to her people, and if asked about him to say she is fasting, which included silence. Joseph took Mary and the child to a cave for 40 days until she was purified.  Mary was accused by her people, but the child spoke, as the Qur'ân describes (3:46, 5:110, 19:29), but not again until he was of age.  Because Herod still was looking to kill the child, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

      Ath-Tha'labî relates many miracle stories during Jesus' infancy and adulthood.  Mary figures in some stories, as in two variants of the Cana miracle.

      After Jesus seemed to be killed and was taken up to heaven, he is said to have returned, appearing to Mary Magdalene and then to the apostles. He sent them out to the corners of the earth and then went back to God.

      Mary lived on for six more years, having been entrusted to John and Peter. In Rome the emperor “Mârűt” (Nero) killed Peter and Andrew, while John fled with Mary. Mârűt and his soldiers pursued them, but at a point in the road the earth opened and Mary and John disappeared into it. The emperor and his men dug in the spot but found nothing. So, rather abruptly, ends the story of Mary.

Muslim veneration for Mary

Ath-Tha'labî relates a tradition that the four best women in the history of the world are Mary, the mother of Jesus, Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, Khadîja, the first wife of Muhammad, and Fâtima, his daughter.[57]  Bukhârî, author of the foremost collection of tradition (Hadîth), explains that Mary was the best woman in her time, while Khadîja was the best woman of her own time.[58]  No comparisons are made except when speaking of Fâtima, who is called “the first lady (sayyida) of the women of Paradise”.[59]  Ibn-Athîr, Ahmad ibn-Hanbal and Abű-Ja'far at-Tabarî, other collectors of Hadîth, add the qualification: Fâtima is the “first lady of the women of Paradise, after Mary daughter of 'Imrân”.  Yet other Hadîth give the preponderance of honour to Fâtima.[60]

      Islam is generally opposed to any human images, particularly in connection with worship.  Yet, according to al-Azraqî, who wrote a biography of Muhammad around 830, when Muhammad conquered Mecca, “he ordered that all the idols which were around the Ka'ba should be collected, smashed and burned.  The Meccans had put pictures in the Ka'ba, including two of Jesus son of Mary and Mary.  A Ghassân woman joined the pilgrimage of the Arabs and when she saw the picture of Mary in the Ka'ba said, 'My father and my mother be your ransom! You are surely an Arab woman!' The Messenger of God ordered all the pictures to be erased except those of Jesus and Mary” (1:107).

The Christian Mary

The Christian idea of Mary is very different from the Muslim idea of Mary because the Christian idea of Jesus is so different.

      The Christian idea of Jesus is different because Christianity has a different idea of how God relates to the world.  God manifests himself not just in prophetic words, but in the Word that expresses his whole being.  The Word became flesh.

      In becoming man, God becomes the central player in the whole drama of human history.  The burden and struggle of sin and suffering of all the human race became his burden and struggle, and his victory became the victory of the whole human race.

      Mary was and is not a mere spectator to this drama, or even a worshipping admirer like the shepherds at Bethlehem.  Her own part was intimately connected with that of Jesus from the beginning, not just biologically, but by her free act of faith and consent: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), making her worthy of being called “blessed among women” (1:42).  Because of the hypostatic union of the divine nature communicated to Jesus by the Father and the human nature given to him by Mary, Mary is truly the “mother of the Lord” (Lk 1:43, or “mother of God” (Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D.).

      She is also our mother.  Mary standing by the cross, under the tree of redemption, is shown as the antitype of Eve.  She is the real “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20), because she conceived, nurtured and escorted to his final “hour” the one who gave new life to all, including herself. In so doing she is also the “woman” through whom Satan's head was crushed (Gen 3:15).

      Mary's faith and submission to God is the result of God's grace preserving her form all sin from the moment of her conception.  Her perfect Christian life, centring around the mission of her Son, made her worthy of sharing the full victory of Jesus once it was one; so she enjoys the life of the resurrection in her own body, as we are taught in the dogma of her Assumption.

Mary, a bridge to the Muslims

When we talk of a bridge to the Muslims, we could think of an image of Mary that would attract Muslims to a deeper knowledge and understanding of Jesus.  Or we could think of how we could go to Mary for help in bringing Muslims closer to her Son.

      Muslims accept that Mary is the sinless, virgin mother of Jesus, and that she is blessed more than all women.  Mary, for Muslims and Christians, is not an independent prophet standing on her own, but all her status and greatness come form her involvement in the live of her Son.

      Victory over sin has implications: God's holiness must be present in an extraordinary way if, according to Islam, not only is Jesus immune form sin from his conception, but also his Mother and his associate, John the Baptist. Christians know that this is because God joined the human nature of Jesus to his own divine Word, which Muslims find incomprehensible.  Muslims, nevertheless, can approach and enjoy the fragrance of this mystery even if they are too cautious to recognize the source.

      The human figures of Jesus and Mary are complementary, male and female. Some Muslims, like Christians, may find a first attraction in mary which leads them to Jesus, while others may come to appreciate Mary through Jesus.  Although the theological grounds are debated in Islam, Muslims recognize the power of a holy person, whether in this life or the next, to intercede with God for others.  Muslims would not see Jesus as a mediator between God and men as developed in Hebrew 5-10, but would see him as we see Mary, another human being whose prayers God permits to be very effective because of their excelling holiness. In Algeria and Lebanon Muslims are known to pray to Mary in their needs.  While praying over Muslims, as we are sometimes asked to do,it would be very fitting to include prayer to Mary.  She is the one who can lead them to a fuller knowledge of Jesus.

      We have a strange link with Islam in the devotion to our Lady of Fatima. Fatima is a town in Portugal where Mary is said to have appeared, but it is also the name of Muhammad's daughter. the Muslims ruled Spain and Portugal for many years, and the name Fatima, according to legend, was given to the town by an Arab prince in honour of his daughter who also bore the name Fatima.  Muhammad's Fâtima was married to 'Alî, who is specially revered by the Shî'ites, but is recognized, as we have seen, by all Muslims as one of the four best women of all time. Mary's appearances at the town of Fatima have the effect of associating Muhammad's daughter with Mary as a kind of sister, just as Muslims have already recognized on their part.

            The Catholic Church is not about to canonize the daughter of Muhammad, even though she suffered a lot in her life and may possibly have been a holy woman, but the Church seems to recognize more than just a coincidence or equivocation of names between the town of Mary's appearances and the daughter of Muhammad. (See Fulton J. Sheen, The world's first love, ch. 17, “Mary and the Muslims”.)  Sometimes Christian girls take the name Fatima, after our Lady of Fatima. The latter is the name of the cathedral in Jos, the parish in Gusau, and a parish in Makurdi. There is also the congregation of Fatima Sisters in Jos.  The use of the title “our Lady of Fatima” can serve as a reminder to Muslims of the association of Fatima with Mary, giving them added reason to approach her. We too can be reminded by the title “our Lady of Fatima” to pray to Mary to draw Christians to share her relationship with Jesus, founded on faith and love.

[1]Mahmoud Ayoub, "Muslim views of Christianity", Islamochristiana, 10 (1984),p. 62.

[2]On these problems, see Robert Caspar, "Parole de Dieu et langage humain en Christianisme et en Islam", Islamochristiana, 6 (1980), pp. 33-60.

[3]Cf. Michel Hayek, Le Christ de l'Islam (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1959), ch. 2.

[4]Ibid., pp. 70-73, 260. See also Andreas D'Souza, "Jesus in Ibn-`Arabî's Fusűs al-hikam", Islamochristiana, 8 (1982), pp. 185-200. For other tradition details see Joseph Kenny, "Mary and Islam", The Leader, 14 Aug & 28 Aug 1988.

[5]Geoffry Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'ân (London: Faber & Faber, 1965), pp. 70 ff.

[6]Abű-Ishâq Ahmad ath-Tha`labî, Qisas al-anbiyâ' (Cairo: Maktabat al-Jumhuriyya al-`Arabiyya, n.d.), p. 204.

[7]Abű-`Abdallâh Muhammad al-Bukhârî, Sahîh (Cairo: Matâbi` ash-Sha`b, 1958-9), vol. 4, p. 200.

[8]See references in Henri Lammens, Fâtima et les filles de Mahomet (Rome: Pont. Inst. Bibl., 1912), p. 130, and A.J. Wensinck, A handbook of early Muhammadan tradition (Leiden: Brill, 1960), p. 76.

[9]See Lammens, loc. cit., and Jane D. McAuliffe, "Chosen of all women: Mary and Fâtima in Qur'ânic exegesis", Islamochristiana, 7 (1981), p. 20.

[10]Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim, an exploration (London, 1985).

[11]Mahműd az-Zamakhsharî, Al-qishâf `an haqa'iq ghawâmid at-tanzîl (Beirut: Dâr al-Kitâb al-`Arabî, n.d.), vol. 1, p. 587.


[13]Nâsiraddîn al-Baydâwî, Tawâli` al-anwâr min matâli` al-anzâr (Cairo: As`ad M. al-Habbâl, 1939), p. 135.

[14]Ibid., p. 367.  Cf. Maurice Borrmans, "Muslims and the mystery of the cross: rejection or incomprehension", Encounter, 25 (May 1976).

[15]W.C. Smith, "Ahmadiyya, Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd ed.), vol. 1, p. 301.

[16]Cf. M. Ayoub, "Towards an Islamic Christology, II: The death of Jesus, reality or delusion", Muslim World, 70 (1980), pp. 91-121.

[17]See Hayek, op. cit., p. 229.

[18]A canonical reading preferred by Régis Blachčre, Le Coran (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 1966), p. 523.

[19]For details of these traditions see Hayek, op cit., ch. 8.

[20]Cf. Neal Robinson, "Fakhraddîn ar-Râzî and the virginal conception", Islamochristiana, 14 (1988), p. 13.

[21]The earliest account is in `Abdalmalik ibn-Hishâm, As-Sîra an-nabawiyya (Cairo: al-Halabî, 1955), vol. 1, pp. 335 ff.

[22]Ibid., pp. 573 ff.

[23]On the history of Muslim-Christian doctrinal relations see Jean-Marie Gaudeul, Encounters and clashes, Islam and Christianity in history (Rome: P.I.S.A.I., 1984), 2 vols., also Ignazio di Matteo, La divinitŕ di


[24]See Joseph Kenny & S. Babs Mala, "Muslim use of Christian Scriptures", West African Religion, vols. 2-3 (1980), pp. 31-41.

[25]See Gaudeul, op. cit., passim, and W. Montgomery Watt, The formative period of Islamic thought (Edinburgh U.P., 1973), p. 243.

[26]Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur'ân (Lahore: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishâ`at Islam, 1951), notes 424 ff.

[27]Ibid., note 429.

[28]Ibid., note 1540.

[29]A.D. Ajijola, The myth of the cross (Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1975).

[30]Ibid. pp. 40-41.

[31]For details see Hayek, op. cit., ch. 6.

[32]In Louis Massigon, Le Dîwân d'al-Hallâj (Paris: Geuthner, 1955), p. 91.  The line reads: `alâ dîn as-salîb yakűn mawtî, wa-lâ l-bathâ urîd wa-lâ l-madîna.

[33]Cf. George Anawati & Louis Gardet, Mystique musulmane (Paris: Vrin, 1968), pp. 35-40, 101-104, 107-110, 118-121, 171-173.

[34]In Blachčre, op. cit., p. 450.

[35]Cf. Hayek, op. cit. pp. 260 ff. and Adreas D'Souza, op. cit.

[36]Cairo, 1952.

[37]Cairo, 1959.  This was translated by Kenneth Cragg as City of wrong: a Friday in Jerusalem (Amsterdam, 1959).  The author's ethical ideas were developed in his al-wâdî al-muqaddas (Cairo: Dâr al-ma`ârif, 1968).

[38]In Encounter, n. 69 (November 1980).

[39]Ibid., . 12.

[40]Ibid., p. 13.

[41]Kenneth Cragg, op. cit.

[42]D.J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam, the heresy of the Ishmaelites (Leiden: Brill, 1972, 00. 136-137. There is some question how much of this work is authentically that of John of Damascus.

[43]Cf. Gaudeul, op. cit., passim.

[44]Op. cit., ch. 1.

[45]Op. cit., p. 175.

[46]On Christian expectations from Muslims regarding Jesus, cf. Maurice Borrmans, "Attitudes chrétiennes devant la présentation islamique de Jésus", Conference paper at Cordoba, March 1977.

[47]Some assessments have been made of the acquaintance of classical authors about Christian teachings, e.g.: Abdelmajid Charfi, "Christianity in the Qur'ân Commentary of Tabarî, Islamochristiana, 6 (1980), pp. 105-148; Jacques Jomier, "Unité de Dieu. Chrétines et Coran selon Fakhr ad-dîn al-Râzî", Islamochristiana, 6 (1980), pp. 149-177, and W. Montgomery Watt, "Ash-Shahrastînî's account of Christian doctrine", Islamochristiana, 9 (1983), pp. 249-259.

[48]Cf. Jacques Jomier, "L'Evangile de Barnabé", Mélanges de l'Institut Dominicain d'Etudes Orientales du Caire, 6 (1959-61), pp. 137-226; Selim `Abdul_Ahad & W.H.T. Gairdner, The Gospel of Barnabas, an essay and inquiry (Hyderabad: Henry Martyn Inst., 1975); Luigi Cirillo & M. Fremaux, Evangile de Barnabe, recherches sur la composition et l'origine: texte et tr. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1977); Jan Slomp, "The Gospel in dispute. A critical evaluation of the first French translation with the Italian text and introduction of the so-called Gospel of barnabas", Islamochristiana, 4 (1978), pp. 67-111; and Mikel de Epalza, "Le milieu hispano-moresque de l'évangile islamisant de Barnabé (XVIe-XVIIe sičcle)", Islamochristiana, 8 (1982), pp. 159-183.


[49]Louis Gardet distinguishes the Christian idea of indwelling: "Elle n'est aucunement communication ou infusion substantielle, un hulűl au sens oů les docteurs musulmans entendent ce terme" - Dieu et la destinée de l'homme (Paris: Vrin, 1967), p. 105.

[50]Cf. Raymond of Capua, The life of Catherine of Siena, tr. C. Kearns (Washington: M. Glazier, 1980), part 1, ch. 10, p. 85.

[51]This is the theme of his Subida del monte Carmelo, outlined especially in Book 1, ch. 4 and ch. 13. Cf. Crisogono de Jesus, Vida y obras de San Juan de la Cruz (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1950), pp. 568 ff.

[52]the Interior Castle, 6th mansion, ch. 7. Cf. The collected works of St. Teresa of Avila, tr. K. Kavanaugh (Washington: ICS Publ., 1980), vol. 2, pp. 397 ff.

[53]Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q.45, a.7; q.93, esp. a.4.

[54]For further discussion of this question see Joseph Kenny, "Islamic monotheism, principles and consequences", in Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa, Christianity and Islam in dialogue (Cape Coast, 1987), pp. 139-149.

[55]Cf. Michel Hayek, Le Christ de l'Islam (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1959), ch. 2.

[56]Ibid., pp. 70-73, 260. See also Andreas D'Souza, "Jesus in Ibn-`Arabî's Fusűs al-hikam", Islamochristiana, 8 (1982), pp. 185-200. For other tradition details see Joseph Kenny, "Mary and Islam", The Leader, 14 Aug & 28 Aug 1988.

[57]Abű-Ishâq Ahmad ath-Tha`labî, Qisas al-anbiyâ' (Cairo: Maktabat al-Jumhuriyya al-`Arabiyya, n.d.), p. 204.

[58]Abű-`Abdallâh Muhammad al-Bukhârî, Sahîh (Cairo: Matâbi` ash-Sha`b, 1958-9), vol. 4, p. 200.

[59]See references in Henri Lammens, Fâtima et les filles de Mahomet (Rome: Pont. Inst. Bibl., 1912), p. 130, and A.J. Wensinck, A handbook of early Muhammadan tradition (Leiden: Brill, 1960), p. 76.

[60]See Lammens, loc. cit., and Jane D. McAuliffe, "Chosen of all women: Mary and Fâtima in Qur'ânic exegesis", Islamochristiana, 7 (1981), p. 20.